Abstract: Royal and divine sonship/daughterhood (bānîm = “children”/“sons,” bānôt = “daughters”) is a prevalent theme throughout the Book of Mosiah. “Understanding” (Hebrew noun, bînâ or tĕbûnâ; verb, bîn) is also a key theme in that book. The initial juxtaposition of “sons” and “understanding” with the name “Benjamin” (binyāmîn, “son of the right hand”) in Mosiah 1:2–7 suggests the narrator’s association of the underlying terms with the name Benjamin likely on the basis of homophony. King Benjamin repeatedly invokes “understand” in his speech (forms of “understand” were derived from the root *byn in Hebrew; Mosiah 2:9, 40; 4:4; cf. 3:15) — a speech that culminates in a rhetorical wordplay on his own name in terms of “sons”/“children,” “daughters,” and “right hand” (Mosiah 5:7, 9). “Understand,” moreover, recurs as a paronomasia on the name Benjamin at key points later in the Book of Mosiah (Mosiah 8:3, 20; 26:1–3), which bring together the themes of sonship and/or “understanding” (or lack of thereof) with King Benjamin’s name. Later statements in the Book of Mosiah about “becoming” the “children of God” or “becoming his sons and daughters” (Mosiah 18:22; 27:25) through divine rebirth allude to King Benjamin’s sermon and the wordplay on “Benjamin” there. Taken as a literary whole, the book of Mosiah constitutes a treatise on “becoming” — i.e., divine transformation through Christ’s atonement (cf. Mosiah 3:18–19). Mormon’s statement in Alma 17:2 about the sons of Mosiah having become “men of a sound understanding” thus serves as a fitting epilogue to a narrative arc begun as early as Mosiah 1:2.
[Page 240]“My son, attend unto my wisdom, and bow thine ear to my understanding” (Proverbs 5:1)
Ancient Israelites understood the name Benjamin (bin/ben, “son” plus yāmîn, “right [hand]”) to mean “son of the south [i.e., the directional right hand]” or “son of the right hand [i.e., son of favored status].”1 Given the evident meaning of the name Benjamin, royal sonship/ daughterhood appropriately constitutes a major focus of the Book of Mosiah (as we now have it).2
However, “understanding” constitutes another important emphasis throughout the Book of Mosiah. The noun “understanding” is almost always represented in Hebrew by the noun bînâ3 or its cognate tĕbûnâ (“understanding, cleverness, skill”)4 and the verb “understand” by the Hebrew verbal root b-y-n (bîn = “to understand,” “to pay attention to, [Page 241]to consider”5 or “discern”6). The root meaning of both of these terms is to make a separation (cf., e.g., Arabic byn “be separated, remote, clear, obvious”).7 From a phonological standpoint, both the noun and verb forms of bîn resemble the Hebrew word bēn (“son”), a key element in the name Benjamin, the two differing only in the lack of a yod in the latter. The paronomastic interrelationship of these conceptual elements also works in Egyptian.8 Benjamin (“son of the right hand”) resembles the Egyptian personal name sꜣ ı͗mn.t (“son of the [deified] right hand/West”9 — Hebrew yāmîn and Egyptian ı͗mn.t, both “right hand,” are cognate). The noun sꜣ (zꜣ), “son”10 — which appears to have constituted an element in several Israelite/Nephite names11 — and the noun sꜣt, “daughter” constitute homonyms of Sı͗ꜣ (Sia or Saa, a divine personification of Wisdom or Perception) and sı͗ꜣ (as a verb, to “recognize,” “perceive,” “know, be aware of”; as a noun, “perception or knowledge”).12 These in turn constitute homonyms of the verb sꜣı͗ “be wise, prudent,”13 the noun sꜣꜣ “wise man,” and possibly “wisdom[?].”14
In what follows, I will endeavor to show that the homophony of the name “Benjamin” (binyāmîn, “son of the right hand”), bēn/bānîm/bānôt (“son”/“sons, children”/“daughters”) and byn/bînâ (verb “understand,” noun “understanding”), whatever Mormon’s actual written language on the plates,15 served as a paronomastic organizing principle for the [Page 242]material that deals with King Benjamin, his sermon, and its legacy. First, the narrative introduction of King Benjamin and his paraenesis16 to his sons, including his royal heir Mosiah II, correlated the name Benjamin with the concepts of proper sonship and “understanding” (Mosiah 1, esp. vv. 2, 5). Second, this paraenetic paronomasia hints at the important conclusion toward which King Benjamin’s subsequent sermon drives: King Benjamin’s people were, like his own sons, “becoming” the “children of Christ, his sons and his daughters.” Their collective “becoming” men and women of “understanding” (cf. Mosiah 1:2) was key to this transformation. Thus, third, the theme of “understanding” also helps to frame portions of his subsequent temple sermon (Mosiah 2:9; 40; 4:4). Fourth, the connection between “sons”/“children,” “understanding,” and “becoming” repeatedly resurfaces throughout the Book of Mosiah, especially where the text reflects back on King Benjamin’s speech. All of this suggests that the paronomastic association between the name “Benjamin,” sonship/daughterhood (and “becoming”), and “understanding” is not only of prime thematic importance in the Book of Mosiah, but helps us to better “understand” Jesus Christ’s divine sonship — a status to which we too are called.
“That Thereby They Might Become Men of Understanding”
At the beginning of the extant Book of Mosiah, both Mormon and King Benjamin link sonship and the education given Benjamin’s three bānîm (“sons”) to “understanding”:
And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the people who belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin [binyāmîn] had continual peace all the remainder of his days. And it came to pass that he had three sons [Hebrew bānîm]; and he called their names Mosiah and Helorum and Helaman. And he caused that they should be taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding [bînâ] and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which was delivered them by the hand of the Lord. And he also taught them concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, saying: My [Page 243]sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God. For it were not possible that our father Lehi could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians, therefore he could read these engravings and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time. I say unto you, my sons: Were it not for these things which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, which know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct. O my sons, I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true, and also that these records are true. And behold also the plates of Nephi which contain the records and the sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now, and they are true; and we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes. (Mosiah 1:1–6; emphasis in all scriptural citations mine)17
John Tvedtnes first noted the clear textual dependency of Mosiah 1:2–6 on 1 Nephi 1:1–4: “Both passages describe teaching and mention ‘fathers’ or ‘parents’ (the Hebrew uses one word for both), the name(s) of the son(s), ‘Jerusalem,’ the ‘language of the Egyptians,’ and the ‘mysteries of God’ and declare that the record is ‘true.’”18 Tvedtnes further remarks, “It is significant that Benjamin’s use of Nephi’s opening [Page 244]words are found at the point in the record where the king would have recently received the small plates.”19
Based on John Gee’s observations regarding the etymology of the name Nephi from Egyptian nfr,20 I posited that Nephi’s autobiographical introduction in 1 Nephi 1:1 involves a wordplay on the meaning of his own name: “I Nephi having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father. … yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” Extending Tvedtnes’s initial observation, I further suggested that the textual dependency of Mosiah 1:2–6 on 1 Nephi 1:1–3 extended to wordplay on King Benjamin’s name in terms of “sons” and “understanding.”21
King Benjamin’s desire to have his “sons” (bānîm) “become men of understanding” that they “might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes” (Mosiah 1:5), amounted to a desire to have his sons become like their righteous ancestors Lehi and Nephi (1 Nephi 1:1, 5–14). To “have his commandments always before [their] eyes” evokes the idea of frontlets and phylacteries (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:8; Proverbs 6:21) that keep the word of the Lord ever present in one’s memory and consciousness. It also recalls the royal requirements in Deuteronomy 17:18–20 regarding reading the law.
Moreover, it is presumably an application of the very same principle enjoined upon all Israel in Deuteronomy 1:13: “Take you wise men, and understanding [ʾănāšîm ḥăkāmîm ûnĕbōnîm, or “wise and understanding men”] and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.” This kind of “understanding” was considered a necessary ingredient of the best kind of leadership. For example, the Lord commends Solomon for having “asked for [himself] understanding [hābîn] to discern [hear] judgment” (1 Kings 3:11), so that he could “discern [lĕhābîn, understand] between [bên] good and bad” (3:9). The Lord declares, “I have given thee a wise and an understanding [nābôn] heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee” (1 Kings 3:12). Isaiah prophesied regarding the [Page 245]Davidic Messiah22 that “the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding [bînâ], the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). The kind of “understanding” that characterized King Benjamin himself, also came to characterize his son, Mosiah II. For Mormon, a major point of the extant Book of Mosiah is to show how that “understanding” came to characterize Alma the Elder and his people, then later Alma the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah, the latter of whom “could not understand the words of King Benjamin” when he first spoke them.
“Open … Your Hearts That Ye May Understand”
Mormon carries the theme of “sonship” over from King Benjamin’s paraenesis to his sons (Mosiah 1), when he describes the “family” setting of Benjamin’s farewell covenant23 speech. In Mosiah 2:3, Mormon notes that Benjamin’s people “took of the firstlings of their flocks, that they might offer sacrifice and burnt offerings according to the law of Moses” — i.e., as required by the book of Deuteronomy.24 He then states:
And it came to pass that when they came up to the temple, they pitched their tents round about, every man according to his family,25 consisting of his wife and his sons and his daughters [Page 246]and their sons and their daughters, from the eldest down to the youngest, every family being separate one from another. And they pitched their tents round about the temple, every man having his tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them. (Mosiah 2:5–6)
King Benjamin’s temple-sermon was, appropriately, not only a family affair26 (cf. Hebrew bayit/bêt, “house” = “family”; “temple”) but a generational event. The presence of grandparents, parents, and children in the Israelite audience with tents pitched “round about the temple”27 underscores the generational nature, not only of this temple experience, but also of the story that Mormon presents going forward. His repetition of the terms “sons” and “daughters” anticipates King Benjamin’s focus on divine sonship and daughterhood and the climactic scene in his farewell speech (see Mosiah 5:7–15).
Deuteronomy 31 records that Moses gave instructions for the reading of the Law “in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of the tabernacles” (Deuteronomy 31:10). He instructed, “Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:13). King Benjamin’s covenant sermon in Mosiah 2–5 also served this purpose and function. Benjamin emphasized such “learning” (Mosiah 2:17) but also, relatedly and more frequently, “understanding” (cf. the importance of understanding in Nehemiah 8:2–3).
Just as King Benjamin specifically emphasized “becom[ing] men of understanding” as part of his sonship-focused paraenesis, he brings a similar emphasis to his temple sermon. In fact, the entire first movement of King Benjamin’s speech is framed by the verb “understand” [Page 247](cf. Hebrew byn). The opening frame of the speech calls his audience to “open” their “ears” (i.e., to have “ears to hear”)28 and to “open” their “hearts” so as to “understand”:
And these are the words which he spake and caused to be written, saying: My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day, for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear and your hearts that ye may understand and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. (Mosiah 2:9)
We earlier noted the textual dependency of Mosiah 1:2–6 on 1 Nephi 1:1–4, including the wordplay on “Benjamin” in terms of “sons” and “understanding.” King Benjamin’s use of “understand” to frame his discourse to his people serves a similar function to Mormon’s use (or replication) of it in Mosiah 1:2 and Benjamin’s own use of it in Mosiah 1:6. Just as King Benjamin wished his sons to “become men of understanding” and to “read and understand of his mysteries,” his ultimate objective for his people is that they “become his [Christ’s] sons and his daughters”29 enthroned at “the right hand of God” and to “understand” all “the mysteries of God.”
It should be additionally noted here that the phrase “mysteries of God” also recalls 1 Nephi 1:1 (“having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God”) and other similarly worded statements from Nephi: Nephi testifies that he had “great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, [he] did cry unto the Lord. And [the Lord] did visit [him] and did soften [his] heart that [he] did believe all the words which had been spoken by [his] father” (1 Nephi 2:16). He further avers, “For he that diligently seeketh shall find, and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded to them by the power of the Holy Ghost as well in this time as [Page 248]in times of old and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore the course of the Lord is one eternal round” (1 Nephi 10:19).
Taken together, King Benjamin’s summons to his people to “open [their] hearts that [they] may understand” for the express purpose “that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to [their] view” especially recalls Jacob’s statement regarding the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem and their failure to “understand” (Jacob 4:18–22). They failed to “understand” the Lord’s sôd30 — his “secret” (KJV Amos 3:7), or, better, his “plan” and the “council” in which that “plan” was presented — which prophets, the “stewards of the mysteries of God,”31 like Lehi had declared to them:
But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people, and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand because they desired it. And because they desired it, God hath done it that they may stumble. And now I Jacob am led on by the Spirit unto prophesying, for I perceive by the workings of the Spirit which is in me that by the stumbling of the Jews they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation. But behold, according to the scriptures, this stone shall become the great and the last and the only sure foundation upon which the Jews can build. And now my beloved, how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it that it may become the head of their corner? Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you if I do not by any means get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit and stumble because of my overanxiety for you. (Jacob 4:14–18)
Jacob’s entire critique revolves around an extended paronomasia involving the verb “understand” (bîn), “stone” (ʾeben)/“son” (bēn, from vv. 5, 11 and drawn from Isaiah 8:14–15; 28:16; and Psalms 118:22) and the verb [Page 249]bānâ, “build.” Notably, ʾeben (“stone”), and bēn are both apparently related to bānâ, while bîn (“understand”) constitutes an etymologically- unrelated homonym. All of these images Jacob juxtaposes with the temple-architectural images of the “sure foundation” (mûsād mûssād) from Isaiah 18:1632 and the “head” stone of the corner from Psalm 118:22.33
King Benjamin’s opening commandment that his people “understand” that the “mysteries of God may be unfolded to [their] view” recalls King Benjamin’s assertion: “My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God” (Mosiah 1:3). The “mysteries of God” here and in other contexts has at least partial reference to the esoterica of the temple and its rites (cf. Greek mysteria)34 that enabled one to “become” one of the “saints” or “holy ones” and participate in the divine council35 — the sôd.
One of the most important sôd-texts36 in the Hebrew Bible is found in Jeremiah 23:18–22, which conceivably constituted one of the “many [Page 250]prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” found on the brass plates.37 Lehi38 and his son Nephi,39 like Jeremiah their contemporary, became prophets whose legitimacy was confirmed by their having “stood” in Yahweh’s sôd:
For who hath stood in the counsel [sôd, council] of the Lord, and hath perceived [seen] and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it? Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord shall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly [titbônĕnû bāh bînâ; or, in the latter days you will understand it clearly (NRSV)]. I have not sent these [false] prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel [sôd, “council”] and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23:18–22)
Notably, Jeremiah mentions sôd or “(divine) council” and the concept of prophets standing in the divine council in the context of the Judahites’ failure at that time to “understand clearly” (titbônĕnû bāh bînâ, literally, you will understand in it understanding) the Lord and his purposes. As Jacob had noted (see above), Judah and Jerusalem did not then “understand” the Lord or his purposes and “sought for things which they could not understand.” Jeremiah prophesies, in essence, that what was then mysterious to the hardhearted inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem would be “made bright at last”40: the day would come when they would clearly understand the Lord and his purposes after they have come to complete fulfillment.
In commanding his people to “open … your hearts that the ye may understand, that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view,” King Benjamin expressed his desire that his temple audience [Page 251]have an experience akin to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s description of the experiences that he and Oliver Cowdery experienced in the Kirtland Temple in D&C 110:1–2: “The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.” They, in effect, stood in the Lord’s sôd — the divine council — as in a kind of endowment41 and “understood.” The “fruit” of their nascent “tree[s] of life”42 would thus “enlighten [their] understanding” as it began “to be delicious to [them]; “[their] understanding [could then] begin to be enlightened, and [their] mind[s] … begin to expand” (Alma 32:28, 34).
The prologue of King Benjamin’s sermon echoes Isaiah 6:9–10: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not [wĕʾal tābîn]; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand [yābîn] with their heart, and convert, and be healed.”43 The directive given to Isaiah in the divine council uses the verb bîn twice. In commissioning Isaiah, the Lord had commanded him to make the message difficult for his audience — an audience that “sought for things that they could not understand” and in their “blindness” were thus given “many things which they cannot understand” (Jacob 4:14). The Lord apparently directed King Benjamin to do just the opposite for his temple audience on this occasion.
“I Have Spoken Plain unto You That Ye Might Understand”
Just as King Benjamin opens his speech with a call for his audience to “open … their hearts that [they might] understand” (Mosiah 2:9), he closes the first part of his speech with an address to those who could “understand” his words and a testimony given in such a way that they would “understand” his words:
O all ye old men and also ye young men and you little children which can understand my words — for I have spoken plain unto you that ye might understand — I pray that ye should [Page 252]awake to remembrance of the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression. And moreover I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God; for behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual. And if they hold out faithful to the end, they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these things are true, for the Lord God hath spoken it. (Mosiah 2:40–41)
In alluding to the doctrine of Christ with the words “hold out faithful to the end” (see especially 2 Nephi 31:20) and the promise of eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:15, 20), Nephi helped his readers understand his instruction in terms of the covenant path and the architectural and ritual design of the temple itself.44 Among those whom King Benjamin cites as being able to “understand” his words were some of the “little children” present on the occasion. Mormon has deliberate reference to this statement when he describes those a generation later who “could not understand the words of King Benjamin, being little children” (Mosiah 26:1; see further below).
King Benjamin’s statement “I have spoken plain unto you that ye may understand” recalls numerous earlier statements by his ancestor Nephi that connect “plainness” of writing and speech with “understanding.”45 However, like his earlier use of the verb rendered ”understand” in Mosiah 2:9, King Benjamin’s use of “plain” and “understand” in Mosiah 2:40 recalls the words of Jacob in Jacob 4:
Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men, for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore it speaketh of things as they really are and of things as they really will be. Wherefore these things are manifested unto us plainly for the salvation of our [Page 253]souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old. But behold, the Jews [i.e., the inhabitants of 8th–7th century Judah and Jerusalem] were a stiffnecked people, and they despised the words of plainness and killed the prophets and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand because they desired it. And because they desired it, God hath done it that they may stumble. (Jacob 4:13–14)
King Benjamin’s statement of purpose in Mosiah 2:40 (“I have spoken unto you plain that ye might understand”), like the prologue to his address and like Nephi’s “delight” in “plainness,” is nearly the opposite of the prophetic commission given to Isaiah. As also noted above, when Isaiah received his prophetic commission, he was commanded to make his message difficult for his audience (“Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not [wĕʾal tābînû]; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand [yābîn] with their heart, and convert, and be healed,” Isaiah 6:9–10).
The difficulty of Isaiah’s message is mentioned throughout his writings. He was “given the tongue of the learned” so that he would “know how to speak a word in season to the weary” or “unto thee, O house of Israel” (2 Nephi 7:4). In Isaiah 28, the prophet asks: “Whom shall he [the Lord] teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand [yābîn] doctrine [literally, a “hearing” or a “report”]? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little: For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:8–11). Importantly, it is this very text that precedes Isaiah’s prophecy about the “fall” of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the “stone” (Isaiah 28:13–16) that Jacob correlates, via Gezera Shawa, with Isaiah 8:14–15 and Psalm 118:22 in Jacob 4:18–22.46
[Page 254]Isaiah later mentions what could be viewed47 as an eventual reversal of the mystification of his message: “And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken. The heart also of the rash shall understand [yābîn] knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly [ṣāḥôt]” (Isaiah 32:3– 4). In contrast to Isaiah, King Benjamin successfully made his message plain to the understanding of his temple audience. The words of Proverbs 8:8–9 would have thus been at home on the lips of Nephi, Jacob, or King Benjamin himself: “All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain [nĕkōḥîm] to him that understandeth [mēbîn], and right to them that find knowledge.”
A part of the work of “understanding” that King Benjamin wishes his people to do is to “consider on [i.e., reflect on, meditate on48] the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God” (Mosiah 2:40–41). The phrase “blessed and happy state” evokes the image of Lehi’s tree of life — the “tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10). Daniel C. Peterson has noted the probable allusive wordplay involving “happy” (Hebrew ʾašrê) and the asherah, a stylized “tree of life” that was a part of the worship of some Israelites,49 though the asherahs and the practices associated with them were later condemned outright by the ascendant, so-called “Deuteronomists.”
Wisdom and “understanding” are thus intrinsically connected to “happiness” and the “tree of life,” and both are associated with the “right hand” (yāmîn): “Happy [ʾašrê] is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding [tĕbûnâ]”; “length of days is in her right hand [bîmînāh]”; “She is a tree of life [ʿēṣ ḥayyîm] to them that lay hold upon her: and happy [mĕʾuššār] is every one that retaineth her” (Proverbs 3:13–18).50
“They Hardened Their Hearts and Understood Not”
vs. “Becom[ing] as Little Children”
In the second portion of his speech, King Benjamin uses a verb rendered “understand” just once. Relating the words of an angel, he describes ancient Israel’s response to the Law of Moses as a typological system:
[Page 255]Yet the Lord God saw that his people were a stiffnecked people, and he appointed unto them a law, even the law of Moses. And many signs, and wonders, and types [cf. the Hebrew noun tabnît < bny] and shadows shewed he unto them, concerning his coming; and also holy prophets spake unto them concerning his coming; and yet they hardened their hearts, and understood not that the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood. And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins. (Mosiah 3:14–16)
Deuteronomy frames Israel’s obedience to the Law of Moses in terms of wisdom and understanding. Moses declares, “Keep therefore and do them [the Lord’s statutes and judgments]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding [bînatkem] in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding [nābôn] people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). The angel who spoke to King Benjamin, in turn, frames “understanding” specifically in terms of understanding the sacred “types and shadows” specifically associated with the tabernacle/temple architectural and ritual design in Exodus 25:8–9, 40 (cf. Hebrews 8:5).51 Unfortunately, ancient Israel’s response to the divinely-appointed “many signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows” was to “harden their hearts.” As a result, they “understood not” the meaning of their miraculous deliverances, their temple with its sacrificial system, and all that they “pointed” to: the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh and “the atonement of his blood.”
The angel’s assessment of ancient Israel’s failure to “understand” Christ’s atonement and the typological system that pointed to it had particular relevance to King Benjamin’s temple audience who themselves should have been familiar with the types in the sacrificial system, the temple’s ritual and structural architecture, and in the temple’s [Page 256]appurtenances. Moreover, they were descendants of the very Israelites who had hardened their hearts and failed to “understand.”
King Benjamin’s use of “little children” in this instance refers, of course, to all children in general under the age of accountability.52 However, in the context of the foregoing it also recalls “the little children” in his audience at the temple, some of whose “hearts were hardened” as they grew to adulthood (Mosiah 26:3), including Mosiah II’s sons — King Benjamin’s grandsons. King Benjamin knew that the greatest obstacle to spiritual “understanding” is the hardness of heart that comes through pride and carnality. The antidote for hardness of heart is divine sonship or daughterhood — to become as a “child”:
And moreover I say unto you that there shall be no other name given nor no other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ the Lord Omnipotent. For behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just. And the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy, but men drinketh damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children53 and believeth that salvation was and is and is to come in and through the atoning blood of Christ the Lord Omnipotent. For the natural man is an enemy to God and has been from [Page 257]the fall of Adam and will be forever and ever but if he yieldeth to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:17–19)
Paradoxically, those who become men and women of understanding “humble themselves and become as little children.” These men and women recognize that the “natural man” (or natural woman) “is nothing,”54 “even less than the dust of the earth,”55 and, worse, an enemy to God. They recognize that the only wise course of action is to “put off the natural man” as one would take off clothing and, in Paul’s words, “put on Christ” — that is, “become a saint through the atonement of Christ” and “become as a child”56 (Mosiah 3:19).57
At this point King Benjamin, recalls the name of his own royal “son” and heir “Mosiah” when he declares, “And moreover, I say unto you, that the time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior [môšîaʿ] shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:20–21). The name Mosiah probably derives from58 or contains the term môšîaʿ, the Hebrew term for “savior.”59 On the occasion of his son Mosiah’s ascension to the [Page 258]throne and using the angel’s words, King Benjamin employed a wordplay pointing to the true môšîaʿ or Savior that Mosiah typified.
“That Ye May Hear and Understand
the Remainder of My Words”
Amid the dramatic proskynesis60 of his people in response to the second part of his speech and amid further ritual actions through which they place themselves under a formal oath and covenant with the Lord (see Mosiah 4:2; 5:1–6), King Benjamin re-opens his sermon with yet another call to “understand”: “And king Benjamin again opened his mouth and began to speak unto them, saying: My friends and my brethren, my kindred and my people, I would again call your attention, that ye may hear and understand61 the remainder of my words which I shall speak unto you” (Mosiah 4:4). King Benjamin’s third call to “understanding” marks the opening of the third part of his speech and recalls his earlier emphasis on understanding in his speech (Mosiah 2:9, 40; 3:15), and the emphasis on “understanding” in the paraenetic material of Mosiah 1:2–6.
“Ye … Have Become His Sons and Daughters”
King Benjamin emphasized his son Mosiah’s royal sonship at the outset of his speech: “[the Lord God] hath commanded me that I should declare unto you this day, that my son Mosiah is a king and a ruler over you”; “if ye shall keep the commandments of my son, or the commandments of God which shall be delivered unto you by him, ye shall prosper in the land, and your enemies shall have no power over you” (Mosiah 2:30–31).62 The statement “I … declare unto you this day that my son Mosiah [Page 259]is a king and a ruler over you” dramatically recalls the enthronement liturgy of Psalm 2:7: “I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son [bĕnî]; this day have I begotten thee.”
At the end of his speech, however, King Benjamin democratizes63 his earlier use of the enthronement liturgy of Psalm 2:7 in a climactic rhetorical wordplay on his own name — i.e., “son of the right hand.” The first part of this rhetorical wordplay, which emphasizes the divine nature of the sonship and daughterhood to which his people were attaining, constitutes a pun on the first element in his name, “son”:
And now, these are the words which king Benjamin [binyāmîn] desired of them. And therefore he said unto them: Ye have spoken the words that I desired, and the covenant which ye have made [cut] is a righteous covenant. And now because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children [Hebrew bĕnê or yaldê] of Christ, his sons [bānāw or bānâw] and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you [cf. “have I begotten thee,” yĕlidtîkā, from Psalm 2:7], for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore ye are born of him and have become his sons [bānāw or bānâw] and his daughters [ûbĕnōtâw]. (Mosiah 5:6–7)
The Hebrew Bible repeatedly defines and describes Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord in terms of sonship. A prophecy by Hosea describes Israel collectively as God’s “son”: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son [libĕnî, “as my son”64] out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1) — a text that Matthew notably applies individually to Jesus’s royal/divine sonship (Matthew 2:15). To be “called” God’s “son”/“daughter”/“child” was to become such (see Matthew 5:9; [Page 260]cf. Hosea 1:10 [MT 2:1]: “It shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons [bĕnê, children] of the living God [ʾēl-ḥāy]”).65 In some of these covenant “sonship” contexts, the Hebrew term bānîm (“sons”) can be understood as gender inclusive — i.e., “children”: “Ye are the children [bānîm] of [belonging to] the Lord [lyhwh] your God … for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be [become] a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1–2). Similarly, the Song of Moses says regarding Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness, “And when the Lord saw it [Israel’s idolatrous sacrifices], he abhorred them, because of the provoking of his sons [bānâw], and of his daughters [ûbĕnōtâw]” (Deuteronomy 32:19). Notwithstanding all past covenant violations, Isaiah prophesies that the Lord would gather his “sons” and “daughters”: “I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons [bānay] from far, and my daughters [ûbĕnôtây] from the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 43:6). The idea that Israelites were Yahweh’s bānîm recurs as a theme in Isaiah’s prophecies,66 as well as Jeremiah’s.67
King Benjamin, as noted above, quotes the royal sonship decree of Psalm 2:7 in Mosiah 5:7. There he also quotes the version of the covenant rebirth formula (sometimes called a covenant “adoption” formula) familiar to us from 2 Samuel 7:14.68 Regarding David’s royal son, Solomon and the [Page 261]royal line that would issue from him, the Lord declared: “I will be [become] his father, and he shall be [become] my son [lĕbēn]” (2 Samuel 7:14). What is so radical about King Benjamin’s use of these texts on the occasion of his own son’s enthronement, is that he applies them to all of his people as well. In giving his people a “name” — the name of Messiah or “Christ” — King Benjamin gave his people an endowment to “become” kings and queens as sons and daughters of Christ.
Just as the first part of the wordplay on King Benjamin’s name in Mosiah 5 emphasizes royal/divine sonship and daughterhood, the second part of the wordplay in the climax of King Benjamin’s speech emphasizes the last part of his name: the yāmîn or “right hand,” the place of divine favor versus the “left hand” the place of divine disfavor:
And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this [i.e., takes upon oneself the name of Christ by covenant] shall be found at the right hand [i.e., at the yāmîn] of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ. (Mosiah 5:9)
And now it shall come to pass that whosoever shall not take upon them the name of Christ must be called by some other name; therefore he findeth himself on the left hand of God. And I would that ye should remember also that this is the name that I said I should give unto you that never should be blotted out except it be through transgression; therefore take heed that ye do not transgress, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts. I say unto you: I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also the name by which he shall call you. (Mosiah 5:10–12)
King Benjamin contrasts the final state of those who have “become” Christ’s “sons” and “his daughters” at “the right hand” of God (“called by the name of Christ” or “called by the name of the Lord,” Deuteronomy 28:10),69 with those who find themselves on the “left hand of God.” King Benjamin, like his own name (“son of the right hand”), [Page 262]associates kinship terminology (“children,” “sons,” and “daughters”) with the right hand in Mosiah 5:7–9, but not with the “left hand.” In other words, the kinship status of those found on the left hand remains completely undefined: they “must be called by some other name.” Finally and appropriately, king Benjamin describes the kinship relationship between the Lord and the faithful as “sealed.” The Lord “seals” the faithful “his”70 or “to him”71 with his name “written always in [their] hearts.72 All of this seems to suggest that eternal kinship relations exist “at the right hand of God” or “in the Lord” (cf. New Testament Greek en kyriō), but ultimately not outside of that sphere.73
It should be further noted that divine rebirth (or so-called “adoption”) language first occurs here in the Book of Mormon. King Benjamin’s statements “this day he hath begotten you” (quoting Psalm 2:7, see above) [Page 263]and “born of him” find later iteration in the Book of Mosiah as “born of the spirit,”74 “born of god,”75 and “born again”76 (Mosiah 27:24–25, 28). Alma uses this language in Mosiah 27 and elsewhere (Alma 5:14, 49; 36:5, 23–24, 26; 38:6; cf. 22:15).
“So That They Might Understand the Words Which He Spake”
In the text that follows King Benjamin’s sermon in Mosiah 2–5, Mormon makes the first significant reference to that sermon in Mosiah 8. After Ammon1, a member of the former ruling Mulekite/Mulochite77 royal family in Zarahemla,78 successfully locates the remnant of Zeniff’s people, Zeniff’s grandson Limhi has him address his people. Mormon specifically mentions that Ammon utilized King Benjamin’s speech as a means of helping these Zeniffite-Nephites “understand” everything else that he said:
And he caused that Ammon should stand up before the multitude and rehearse unto them all that had happened unto their brethren from the time that Zeniff went up out of the land even until the time that he himself came up out of the land. And he also rehearsed unto them the last words which king Benjamin had taught them, and explained them to the people of king Limhi, so that they might understand all the words which he spake. (Mosiah 8:2–3)
In juxtaposing the name Benjamin with the verbal phrase “so that they might understand” (cf. Hebrew bîn), Mormon recalls the foregoing paronomasia on Benjamin and “understanding” (bînâ/tĕbûnâ/byn). Mormon further recalls King Benjamin’s earlier desire that his sons might read and “understand” the mysteries of God (Mosiah 1:2) and his repeated use of “understanding” in framing aspects of his sermon. In particular, the verbal expression “so that they might understand” paraphrases the purpose clause of Mosiah 2:40 (“that ye might understand”).
We learn in addition here that King Benjamin’s sermon, which had been written down and disseminated to “those that were not under the [Page 264]sound of his voice,”79 must have received an even wider circulation. As one connected with Mosiah II and a member of the previously ruling royal family in Zarahemla (see Mosiah 7:3, 13), he may have even had some official responsibility for this wider dissemination. In reciting King Benjamin’s speech, in part or in whole, Ammon re-contextualized temple teachings originally situated in the Zarahemla temple for a temple audience in the city of Lehi-Nephi.
On the heels of Ammon’s temple speech, there follows a dialogue between Limhi and Ammon on prophets, seers, revelators, and seership. Limhi’s people had recently discovered the twenty-four plates of Ether and was anxious to have them translated. Ammon informs Limhi that he knew of someone who could translate the plates: “the king of the people who are in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God.” From the time of the publication of the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, it has been customary to assume that this king was Mosiah II. However, the earliest textual evidence suggests King Benjamin was the “seer” that Ammon had in mind. Moreover, it should be remembered that Ammon’s recitation of King Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 8:3) prompts Limhi to have Ammon read the Zeniffite record apparently to ascertain whether Ammon could interpret languages. Ammon’s response suggests that King Benjamin had not yet died at the time of his departure from Zarahemla and had a track record of translating (i.e., the record of the Brother of Jared).80 Limhi’s response appropriately echoes the name Benjamin in terms of bînâ/tĕbûnâ:
And now when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words the king rejoiced exceedingly and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates; and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men. O how marvelous are the works of the Lord And how long doth he suffer with his people Yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men, for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them. (Mosiah 8:19–20)
[Page 265]Limhi’s speech here is notable for its personification of Wisdom in the mode of Proverbs 8:16 (“By me [wisdom/understanding, bînâ in v. 14] princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth”).81 Situated in the context of the foregoing material in the Book of Mosiah, it recalls King Benjamin’s paraenesis (Mosiah 1), his commandment to his people to “understand” (Mosiah 2:9, 40–41; 4:4), and their becoming “sons” and “daughters” at God’s “right hand” (Mosiah 5:7–9). His description of the purpose of the interpreters, “these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men” echoes the words from King Benjamin that he has just heard from Ammon: “Open … your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view” (Mosiah 2:9).
Limhi’s statement in the context of the history of the Zeniffites also represents a significant critique of his own father, his father’s priests, and his people. In his earlier “temple” speech,82 Limhi acknowledges their culpability in the death of Abinadi (“a prophet of the Lord have they slain,” Mosiah 7:26; cf. broadly Mosiah 7:24–33). Mormon later expressly states that “Limhi was not ignorant of the iniquities of his father, he himself being a just man” (Mosiah 19:17). In other words, Limhi, as a royal son, was a man of understanding, who understood in ways that his father did not.
Thus, Limhi’s description of the “understandings of the children of men” as “impenetrable” afforded Mormon perhaps the perfect narrative transition to Abinadi’s earlier prophecies and his lengthy speech in King Noah’s court. As we shall see, Abinadi preached to Limhi’s wicked father Noah and his sycophantic priests a sermon remarkably similar to King Benjamin’s speech, including an emphasis on “understanding” and Christ’s divine sonship. Mormon’s abridgment and inclusion of this speech takes great pains to show that King Noah and his priests, like ancient Israel,83 had specifically failed to “understand” Christ’s divine sonship and the types and shadows in the law of Moses that pointed to it.
[Page 266]“I Would That Ye Should Understand That God Himself Shall Come Down Among the Children of Men”
Some comments at the end of Zeniff’s personal royal autobiography appropriately accord with Mormon’s unfolding theme of “understanding” (or lack thereof) and royal sonship. Mormon appears to have included wholesale Zeniff’s record into his historical abridgment with little or no editorial intrusion. Nevertheless, Zeniff’s comments help us to contextualize Noah and his priests’ failure to “understand” the law of Moses, prophecy, and Christ’s divine sonship, and thus Noah’s failure as a royal “son.”
Having grappled with the Lamanite problem for most of his reign, Zeniff assesses the historical reasons behind Lamanite hardheartedness: “And his [Nephi’s] brethren [Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael] were wroth with him because they understood not the dealings of the Lord; they were also wroth with him upon the waters because they hardened their hearts against the Lord” (Mosiah 10:14). He continues, “thus they have taught their children that they should hate them, and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they have an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi” (Mosiah 10:17). According to Zeniff, the generational Lamanite problem of “unbelief”84 was a direct result of Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael’s failure to “understand … the dealings of the Lord.” Ultimately, their failure to “understand”85 confirmed the legitimacy [Page 267]of Nephi’s leadership and that of his successors86 — especially in the Nephite view — over that of Laman and his royal successors.
Zeniff’s record ends rather abruptly: “And now I, being old, did confer the kingdom upon one of my sons. Therefore, I say no more. And may the Lord bless my people. Amen” (Mosiah 10:22). Zeniff does not even give his successor’s name. Unlike Mosiah I, Benjamin, and Benjamin’s sons,87 Zeniff’s royal son, Noah, would neither be “just” nor become a “m[a]n of understanding” (see below). Mormon resumes his direct authorial/editorial intervention in the next verse with the statement, “And now it came to pass that Zeniff conferred the kingdom upon Noah, one of his sons; therefore Noah began to reign in his stead. And he did not walk in the ways of his father” (Mosiah 11:1). The fact that Mormon names Zeniff’s royal son, Noah, while that son’s own father does not, is striking. Mormon pejoratively exploits the meaning of that son’s name — “rest” — in the evaluation and catalogue of the latter’s sins that follows (e.g., “And he [Noah] caused a breastwork to be built before them that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to his people”).88
All of this sets the stage for Mormon’s presentation of Abinadi’s speech to King Noah and his priests. Todd Parker has noted numerous similarities between King Benjamin’s sermon and Abinadi’s speech(es).89 Mormon uses King Benjamin’s and Abinadi’s speeches as two mutual witnesses that the law of Moses constituted a system of types and [Page 268]shadows that pointed to Jesus Christ as the royal/divine Son of God (see Mosiah 3:14–15; 13:27–32). A salient aspect of Abinadi’s critique is his use of the term “understand,” which, within the context of the narrative sequence, reminds the audience of King Benjamin’s speech, although chronologically-speaking, King Benjamin’s speech would have come later. Abinadi repeatedly excoriates King Noah and his priests for their failure to “understand.” They could not “understand” the words of Isaiah or, apparently, the Law of Moses with its cultic system of types and signs — which they did not keep — and failed to teach about the one to whom they “pointed”:
And now Abinadi saith unto them: Are you priests and pretend to teach this people and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desireth to know of me what these things mean? I say unto you: Woe be unto you for perverting the ways of the Lord For if ye understand these things, ye have not taught them; therefore, ye have perverted the ways of the Lord. Ye have not applied your hearts to understanding; therefore ye have not been wise. Therefore what teachest thou this people? And they said: We teach the law of Moses. And again he said unto them: If ye teach the law of Moses, why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your hearts upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots, yea, and cause this people to commit sin, that the Lord hath cause to send me to prophesy against this people90 — yea, even a great evil against this people? (Mosiah 12:25–29)
As King Benjamin also does (will do) in his sermon, Abinadi recalls ancient Israel and Judah’s failure to “understand.” If King Noah and his priests do not “understand,” they are only “fill[ing] … up the measure of [their] fathers.”91 Abinadi further asks, “And now, did they understand [Page 269]the law? I say unto you: Nay, they did not all understand the law — and this because of the hardness of their hearts. For they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God” (Mosiah 13:32).
Like ancient Israel and Judah, King Noah and his priests did not “understand the law” to the degree that they hardened their hearts and did not keep the law. Nor could they understand what and who the law “pointed” to: Jesus Christ and his redeeming atonement.92 Jesus faced similar obduracy among the religious elite during his mortal ministry.93 Moses had declared to Israel, which was already prone to obduracy, “Keep therefore and do [the statutes and judgments given through Moses]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding [ûbînatkem] in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding [wĕnābôn] people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). “Applying” one’s “heart to understanding” and being “wise” was no more and no less than wholeheartedly keeping and “teaching the law of Moses and the intent for which it was given, persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11; cf. 2 Nephi 25:24–30).
Like King Benjamin (Mosiah 3:15), Abinadi describes the Law of Moses as a system of “types of things to come.”94 The name Moses itself, which in Egyptian denotes “[the God is] begotten” and which acquired the Hebrew connotation “drawer” or “puller,”95 is loaded with christological typology. Moses as a royal96 “begotten” son, “pulled” from the waters of birth/death (cf. Exodus 2:10; Romans 6:4), would “pull” [Page 270]Israel from the waters (cf. especially Moses 1:25) — i.e., “baptiz[ing] Israel” (1 Corinthians 10:2). One who baptizes, as Abinadi’s lone convert Alma the Elder does in Mosiah 18, represents97 Jesus Christ himself who “pulls,” redeems, and resurrects Israel from physical and spiritual death, and divine “rebirth”98 into the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”99 and “newness of life”100 here and hereafter.
Moses as royal “son” was royal “lawgiver.” Benjamin and Mosiah similarly filled this role in righteousness,101 all of them being typical of Jesus Christ. There exists no greater theological statement regarding Jesus Christ’s royal, divine sonship in scripture than the one Abinadi makes before King Noah, a failing royal son, and his priests in Noah’s royal court:
And now Abinadi saith unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh [cf. Mosiah 3:5], he shall be called the Son of God; and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son, the Father because he was conceived by the power of God and the Son because of the flesh, thus becoming the Father and the Son — and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth — and thus the flesh becoming subject to the spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked and scourged and cast out and disowned by his people. And after all this and after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led, yea, even as Isaiah said: As a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. And thus God [Page 271]breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death, giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men, having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy being filled with compassion toward the children of men, standing betwixt them and justice, having broken the bands of death, having taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them and satisfied the demands of justice. And now I say unto you: Who shall declare his generation? Behold, I say unto you that when his soul has been made an offering for sin, he shall see his seed. And now what say ye? And who shall be his seed? (Mosiah 15:1–10)
As part of his piercing exegesis of Isaiah 53 (Mosiah 14) in Mosiah 15–16, Abinadi presents Yahweh as Divine King and Divine Warrior who “came down” 102 and “br[o]ke the bands” of Israel’s — and humankind’s — great enemy, Death (Mot),103 which gave him “power” as “the Son” to “make intercession” in a priestly capacity for all humankind.104 These are images that Noah, as an Israelite king, and his priests as Israelite priests, should have “understood,” appreciated, and taught to a much greater degree than they did.
Thus, King Noah “feared” Abinadi’s words, but did not ever truly “understand” them. Therefore, Noah and his priests never experienced the divine rebirth that makes one Christ’s “seed,”105 though one (Alma) did (see Mosiah 17:2). King Noah’s failure to “understand” Christ’s divine sonship (and thus his own royal sonship) soon culminated in his using Abinadi’s words regarding that divine sonship as the very pretext for executing and martyring the latter (see Mosiah 17:5–20).
[Page 272]“And Thus They Became the Children of God”:
Alma the Elder’s People
Mormon gives an account of the people of Alma, their conversion, their society, their afflictions, and their subsequent redemption in order to demonstrate what “becoming” the “sons” and “daughters” of God looks like in praxis. Alma the Elder, as an after-type of Moses and a prototype of Christ, had baptized his people in (or, “pulled” them from) the waters of Mormon.
But it was not until they were born from above and became “one” that they fully “became” the “children of God”:
And he [Alma] commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another. And thus he commanded them to preach. And thus they became the children of God [Hebrew bĕnê ʾĕlōhîm]. (Mosiah 18:21–22)
At this point in the narrative, Mormon’s description of Alma’s people’s divine rebirth (their “becoming”) recalls the numerous previous statements heretofore in the Book of Mosiah about “becom[ing] men of understanding” (Mosiah 1:2–5); not “becom[ing] an enemy to all righteousness” (Mosiah 2:37); “becom[ing] as little children” (Mosiah 3:18); “becom[ing] a saint through the atonement of Christ” (Mosiah 3:19); and “becom[ing] as a child” (Mosiah 3:19). Moreover, Mormon’s statements invoke the climactic moments of King Benjamin’s speech: “And now because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children [bĕnê106 or yaldê107] of Christ, his sons and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you, for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7). Like King Benjamin’s rhetorical wordplay on his own name, Mormon’s words “and thus they became the children of God” recall the royal rebirth language of 2 Samuel 7:14 (cf. Psalm 2:7) and its democratized form in Deuteronomy 14:1.
Perhaps most appropriately, the collocation “children of God” recalls Abinadi’s description of Christ’s divine birth and sonship (“he shall be called the Son of God; and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son”; “thus becoming the Father and [Page 273]Son”; “the flesh becoming subject to the spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation … ”; “the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father”; “giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men”; “the Son reigneth and hath power over the dead,” Mosiah 15:2–3, 5, 8, 20). Abinadi’s words not only helped Alma’s people — and help us — “understand” what Christ’s divine sonship involved and required, but what was required of them — and is required of us — to become the “children of God” (see again especially Mosiah 3:19: “… and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father”). From this point forward in Mormon’s narrative, the collocation “children of God” serves as a technical term that describes members of the church who have undergone the royal, divine rebirth described throughout the Book of Mosiah.108
“They Could Not Understand the Words of King Benjamin”
Mormon’s abridged “Book of Mosiah” juxtaposes the account of Alma’s and Limhi’s converted peoples with an account of a faith crisis in the “rising generation” among the Nephites. A generation after King Benjamin’s speech, Nephite religion undergoes a major crisis. When Alma the Elder’s people came to Zarahemla, King Mosiah II had apparently given royal sanction to Alma’s church, which had apparently merged with the existing Nephite religion (“Now king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church,” Mosiah 26:8). Mosiah II was reluctant to use royal authority to intervene in the emerging crisis (see Mosiah 26:12), leaving Alma the Elder to sort things through divine revelation.
Mormon frames the problem in language that echoes King Benjamin’s paraenesis to his sons as recorded in Mosiah 1:2–7 and exhortations within his speech (Mosiah 2:9, 40–41; 3:15; 4:4) that emphasize the importance of “understanding”:
Now it came to pass that there were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being [Page 274]little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers. They did not believe what had been said concerning the resurrection of the dead, neither did they believe concerning the coming of Christ. And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened. And they would not be baptized; neither would they join the church. And they were a separate people as to their faith, and remained so ever after, even in their carnal and sinful state; for they would not call upon the Lord their God. (Mosiah 26:1–4)
Mormon’s description of those of “the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake” alludes directly to Mosiah 2:34 (“there are not any among you, except it be your little children that have not been taught concerning these things”) and 2:40 (“you little children who can understand my words”). That group definitively included King Mosiah’s own sons. The “children” (cf. Hebrew bānîm) of “the rising generation” were pointedly unlike King Benjamin’s bānîm/sons (Mosiah II, Helaman, and Helorum) who became “men of understanding” (cf. Hebrew bînâ). They were also unlike King Benjamin’s people — their own parents among them — who had, in fact, “open[ed] [their] ears that [they might] hear, and [their] hearts that [they might] understand and their minds” and thus had “the mysteries of God … unfolded to [their] view” (Mosiah 2:9).
Mormon’s additional comment in Mosiah 6:2 also suggests that he intended to revisit the theme of “sons”/“little children” and “understanding” later in the narrative: “And it came to pass that there was not one soul, except it were little children, but who had entered into the covenant and had taken upon them the name of Christ.” Mosiah 26 brings Mosiah 6:2 up to date.
The “children” of “the rising generation,” thus fit the Lord’s negative description of Isaiah’s audience in Isaiah 6:9–10 (i.e., hard- or “fat”-hearted and unable to “understand”). They had “dwindle[d] in unbelief” like the Lamanites (1 Nephi 12:22–23; cf. 1 Nephi 1:4) and their Israelite ancestors, the Lord’s “sons” and “daughters” of the covenant (bānâw ûbĕnôtâw, “his sons and his daughters”) who provoked him in the wilderness, “children in whom [was] no faith [bānîm lōʾ-ʾēmun bām]” (Deuteronomy 32:19–20; compare to the “Lamanites” and lōʾ-ʾēmun, “no faith,” “unbelief”).109
[Page 275]“Becoming His Sons and Daughters” and “New Creatures”
For, said he [Alma], I have repented of my sins and have been redeemed of the Lord. Behold, I am born of the Spirit. And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women — all nations, kindreds, tongues and people — must be born again, yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. I say unto you: Unless this be the case, they must be cast off. And this I know because I was like to be cast off. (Mosiah 27:24–27)
In addressing Alma the Younger, the Lord quotes from and alludes to112 the climax of King Benjamin’s address — the words that the “children” of their “rising generation,” including Alma and the sons of Mosiah, had failed to understand. The Lord’s use of the phrases “born of God”113 (from “born of him,” Mosiah 5:7), “carnal [state]” (Mosiah 4:2) [Page 276]and “fallen state” (Mosiah 4:5), and “becoming his sons and daughters” (from “having become his sons and daughters,” Mosiah 5:7) all have their antecedents in King Benjamin’s sermon. The phrase “becoming his sons and daughters” echoes the name Benjamin and the marvelous rhetorical play on his own name employed at the end of that sermon.
Mormon appears to suggest in Mosiah 26 that the sons of Mosiah had already been born and were present for King Benjamin’s sermon. Alma the Younger, however, would not have been present for King Benjamin’s sermon, even as a little child or when Ammon read King Benjamin’s words to Limhi’s people. Alma would have encountered King Benjamin’s words only in written or oral form after his father Alma the Elder had emigrated with his people and his own family to Zarahemla, presumably through his father or others.
Although this experience marks the beginning of Alma’s new life, including the understanding of spiritual things, Mormon still marks the sons of Mosiah as not yet “understanding” (“they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which he spake unto them”) until Alma gives his “born again” or “born of God” speech (Mosiah 27:24–31). From this point forward, Mormon reports,
And after they [Alma and the sons of Mosiah] had traveled throughout all the land of Zarahemla and among all the people which was under the reign of king Mosiah, zealously striving to repair all the injuries which they had done to the church, confessing all their sins and publishing all the things which they had seen, and explaining the prophecies and the scriptures to all who desired to hear them. (Mosiah 27:35)
They could “explain” the prophecies and scriptures to the very people that they had been deceiving, flattering, and leading astray because they now truly “understood” those prophecies and scriptures. They also now understood that they “had murdered many of his children — or rather led them away to destruction — ”114 and what they needed to do to “repair” these wrongs. All of this suggests that “understanding” constitutes a key component of being “born of him,” “born of God,” “born again,” and “becoming the children of God” in the same way that “becoming men [Page 277][and women] of understanding” constitutes an important aspect of proper sonship/daughterhood (see especially Mosiah 1:2–6; 2:9, 40; 4:4; 5:6–15; 18:22; 27:24–28).
“They Were Men of a Sound Understanding”
Indeed, the sons of Mosiah became “men of understanding,” in every sense implied by Mormon’s and Benjamin’s statements in Mosiah 1:2– 6. Fourteen years after the initial conversion of Alma and the sons of Mosiah, Mormon relates the story of their first meeting, this at the end of the sons’ long mission among the Lamanites:
And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment he met the sons of Mosiah a journeying towards the land of Zarahemla. Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren. And what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord. Yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth, for they were [i.e., had become and remained] men of a sound understanding; and they had searched the scriptures diligently that they might know the word of God. But this is not all. They had given themselves to much prayer and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy and the spirit of revelation; and when they taught, they taught with power and authority, even as with the power and authority of God. (Alma 17:1–3)
The sons of Mosiah, like Alma the Younger, became “men of understanding” as their father Mosiah II had before them (see Mosiah 1:2–7). Mormon, in fact, says that they “were” or had “become” (cf. Hebrew hāyâ) “men of sound understanding.” Note Mormon connects this fact directly to their “search[ing] [of] the scriptures” to “know the word of God,” which is the very thing that King Benjamin had instilled in his “three sons”: “and he caused that they should be taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which was delivered them by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:2).
Thus we not only hear again echoes of King Benjamin’s name (“son of the right hand”) and that initial paronomasia in terms of “understanding” [Page 278](Hebrew bînâ), but King Benjamin’s formula for becoming “men of understanding.” Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah, like their own fathers, had not just become “men of understanding,” who knew the “word of God” thoroughly, but men of Christ and “son[s] of the right hand” — Benjamins (see especially Helaman 3:24–25).
The textual evidence suggests that the theme of royal/divine sonship and daughterhood and the repetition of “understanding” in the Book of Mosiah both revolve around the name Benjamin and the temple sermon that King Benjamin gave to his people in Zarahemla. This suggests that becoming “men [and women] of understanding” is inseparable from the process of undergoing divine rebirth and walking the covenant path to ultimate enthronement at the “right hand of God.” That divine rebirth includes receiving the ordinances and rites of the temple and “understanding” the mysteries of God (i.e., being “born again … into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” OT1 Moses 6:59).115
Becoming men and women of understanding is much like our initial experiences in language acquisition. As children we understand little of what we see and hear around us at first, but we grow quickly in our understanding. Our mortal education consists of much more than simply being inducted into the lexical semiotics of English, French, Mandarin, or Arabic. We are here to become “experts” in the doctrines and language of the gospel,116 the language of gospel symbolism, and the language of the temple. All of the latter were “languages” that Isaiah, King Benjamin, Abinadi, Mosiah, Alma the Elder, Alma the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah had acquired and passed on to their children and their people. So must we acquire them and pass them on to ours.
[The author would like to thank Suzy Bowen, Daniel C. Peterson, Allen Wyatt, Robert F. Smith, and Victor Worth.]
the Book of Mosiah
peace in the land ~~~~~ Chapter I<II> ~~~~~ And now there was no more …
It should be noted that these putative two lost “chapters” would be much longer than the typical chapter divisions in the Book of Mormon. Jack M. Lyon and Kent R. Minson (“When Pages Collide: Dissecting the Words of Mormon,” BYU Studies 51, no. 4 : 134) see Words of Mormon 1:12–18 as belonging to a 117th page retained by Joseph Smith (i.e., as part of the original “Mosiah” material contiguous with present day Mosiah 1:1). Brant Gardner (“When Hypotheses Collide: Responding to Lyon and Minson’s ‘When Pages Collide’” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 : 105–9) leaves the question open.